US law schools find opportunity in virus-related courses

Model of student-driven flexibility and sharing could aid all institutions, course organisers say

June 2, 2020
Source: iStock

Several US law schools are racing to offer courses focused on the coronavirus pandemic, eyeing a surge in demand driven by society-wide disruptions in public and private legal and behavioural norms.

Seton Hall University, the University of Oklahoma and Creighton University are among the institutions setting up courses as early as this summer and fall − and finding strong interest from current students and beyond.

The main impetus, said Jennifer Oliva, an associate professor of law at Seton Hall, has been a flurry of queries from people working in various roles in the corporate and governmental sectors.

Uncertain of how to handle urgent matters that include revising contracts and establishing safe conditions for employees and customers, Professor Oliva said, callers have been pleading: “Can we get a crash course on some of these things?”

At the University of Oklahoma, producing its coronavirus-specific law class for the summer session was a matter of “reacting swiftly to sociocultural issues”, said its law school dean, Katheleen Guzman.

It is also part of a longer-established practice of colleges creating short-term courses in current topics, for few or no credits.

Some instances have faced criticism as less-than-rigorous attempts to capitalise on fads or entertainment, such as courses exploring tree climbing, the “art of walking” and Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame.

But in general, courses that are shorter in length, lower in workload and more responsive to student enthusiasm have long been regarded as having a legitimate place on college campuses.

And that recognition may only increase, said Kenneth Kiewra, a professor of education psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as the coronavirus pandemic forces reassessments of value and attractiveness across higher education.

Professor Kiewra first encountered what he calls “mini-courses”, and what some others term “pop-up courses”, as an undergraduate at SUNY Oneonta back in the 1970s.

The SUNY campus offered a series in educational psychology, each running about five weeks and worth a single credit. “It was just a wonderful way to sample different content, to see what your interests might be,” Professor Kiewra recalled.

He and some colleagues have been offering similar courses at Nebraska for the past two years, with some attracting as many as 40 students.

With many universities now worried that their academic content might not attract students this autumn without the additional benefit of on-campus excitement, an expansion of short topical courses could help, Professor Kiewra said.

“This could be a chance to dip your toe in the water,” he said. “It’s sort of like reading − you find something you like, let’s try another.”

At Seton Hall, Professor Oliva said she too recognised crises as having the benefit of forcing institutions to think harder about their existing models. She easily reached the 25-student limit she set for her two-credit, summer-session, coronavirus-related law class, with students who include postdoctoral specialists in biosciences, a cardiologist, two nurses, a pharmaceutical professional and a corporate adviser.

While Covid-19 may pass, the value of the short-term course can endure, Professor Oliva said. Pandemics have been part of human history, and more bouts with infectious diseases are likely, she said. And either way, she added, the practice of studying an old subject in a new context brings benefits for students and institutions alike.

One major gain, Professor Oliva said, was the cooperation that she and her colleagues at Oklahoma and Creighton are showing each other. In what could be an example for introducing badly needed efficiencies across academia, the professors at each law school with specific expertise − such as in policing or employment discrimination − are sharing segments online with the others.

“We’re all helping each other out,” she said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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